CORVALLIS - Oregon State University engineering faculty members, including one riding a surfboard outfitted with a waterproof camera, will be featured in a National Geographic television special called "The Science of Waves" on Thursday, May 30.
Last year, OSU received a $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to transform the College of Engineering's O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory on campus into the largest, most sophisticated, and most wired tsunami research facility in the world.
OSU faculty knew the planned expansion of the facility would put the College of Engineering at the epicenter of the worldwide map of tsunami research, but they didn't know it would draw almost immediate attention from National Geographic, or that they would be asked to put a live surfer on the waves created in the facility's 342-foot-long concrete "channel" tank.
But last October, an international film crew for National Geographic spent a day at the wave basin filming for the television special that will be transmitted worldwide via the National Geographic Channel on May 30.
When the film crew learned that Terry Dibble, the wave lab's senior electrical engineer, was an avid surfer, they asked if he would wax up his board and hit the artificial surf. They outfitted Dibble's surfboard with a special camera to gain a shark's-eye view of a breaking wave.
"The OSU facility is superb, brilliant," said associate producer Michelle McGrath. "And because (OSU civil engineering professor) Chuck Sollitt is a teacher as well as a scientist, he was able to say very clearly and concisely what was going on with the waves. It was a perfect combination."
The television program will explore how waves and wave patterns affect the world, from deadly tsunamis and the natural phenomena that trigger them to the way thrill-seeking surfers like Laird Hamilton watch weather patterns and other data to locate the world's biggest waves.
Before coming to OSU, the film crew had been shooting footage in China, Seattle, La Palma (Canary Islands), and at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
OSU's new tsunami research center is a collaborative project between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, both in the OSU College of Engineering.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to make the public aware of the disastrous effect of tsunamis and the importance of understanding and preparing adequately for these phenomena," said Cherri Pancake, OSU professor of computer science. "The tsunami wave basin will be key to developing that understanding, and we're excited that its future home will be featured in the National Geographic special."
Solomon Yim, OSU professor of ocean engineering, who works closely with Sollitt, agreed.
"We were glad to have the film crew visit," Yim said. "It was a great opportunity for OSU to showcase to the world its unique facility. We hope this will further our international collaboration on tsunami research."
When complete, the tsunami wave basin will employ advanced computing and networking technologies that allow students, researchers, and other people around the world to view tsunami simulation experiments in real time without having to travel to Corvallis.
Remote researchers will be able to slow down, speed up, replay, and hear and view the experiments as often as they need to, Pancake said. All of the experiments will be housed in a massive databank, indexed and made easily accessible by Pancake's research in large database accessibility.
"We hope to host a follow-up activity three years from now, when the new facility is complete," Pancake said. "We'll be able to demonstrate just what wave experiments can reveal about how tsunamis develop and how they affect coastal regions. At that time, we'll also be able to show how the capabilities of human observers can be enhanced through the use of advanced information technology, such as "instant replay" and the juxtaposition of sensor information directly on video images."
Terry Dibble, who has 22 years experience at the Wave Research Lab and has been surfing since 1964, said this was not the first time he has surfed the lab's narrow concrete tank, but the worldwide audience will be his largest by far.
Asked how he felt about surfing in front of a camera crew for National Geographic, Dibble replied as most surfers would. "No big deal," he said.
The global premiere of the special airs May 30 at 5 p.m. PDT on the National Geographic Channel, then repeats on the same day at 8 p.m., on June 1 at 1 p.m., and on June 4 at noon. For more information on the program, visit www.nationalgeographic.com.